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Jun 05 2008

Some thoughts on the presidential race

The Democratic Party primary process has finally come to an end with Barack Obama having secured the party nomination by virtue of having acquired the majority of delegates.

In many ways it has been a remarkable process. A system that had seemed for so long to belong to just white men found two candidates not fitting that mold fighting it out to the finish. While I knew that the barriers of race and gender would eventually be overcome, I had thought that it would be first breached by a woman before a minority, simply because the numbers were in favor of women.

But politics is not just mathematics and statistics. It does have an element of contingency and it turned out that this year the particular candidate who happened to be a minority appealed more to Democratic Party members than the candidate who happened to be a woman.

So now it will be Obama versus John McCain who are both, to a lesser and greater extent, establishment politicians, supported by Wall Street and the business sector and the Villagers, so whoever becomes president we should not expect major shifts in policy, especially on the domestic front. I do not expect to see single-payer, universal health care being even considered by either of them. I do not expect to see a fairer and more progressive tax system or more oversight of the corporate and financial sector.

On foreign affairs, I see both Obama and McCain continuing the imperialistic tendencies that have dominated American foreign policy for so long. What I do hope for is marginal improvements, that an Obama presidency will not launch military attacks on other countries and will seek to engage in dialogue with countries that have long been labeled as enemies. Not talking with those whom with one disagrees has always struck me as an insane policy. McCain strikes me as another reckless, dangerous, non-negotiating warmonger in the Bush tradition.

The Hillary Clinton candidacy has been painful to watch and not because she insisted on staying in the race. That was perfectly justifiable and even a good thing because people in every state should have the chance to vote their preferences. In fact, I would have liked all the candidates in both parties to stay to the end so that people have a real chance to vote for the people and policies they favor. I was annoyed that by the time that the Ohio primaries came around on March 4, the only choices I had were Obama and Clinton, although they were #4 and #7 on my preference list from the eight Democratic candidates who started out. The way the system works now, it is the amount of money that a candidate can raise early in the process that determines who stays in and who drops out.

I have written before (see here and here) that both Clintons are ruthlessly ambitious people who seem like they will do anything to achieve personal power. It was not the fact that Clinton stayed to the end that surprised me but the way she ran. I am not naïve. Politicians have to be ambitious and even ruthless but they usually have the good taste to reveal only their ambitions for the attainment of public policies, and keep their personal ambitions under wraps. The Clintons are startling in the way their drive for personal power is so naked and transparent. It seems like there is nothing they will not say or do to win, even if it means dividing their party and the country along lines that are difficult to subsequently heal. Dividing and ruling the poor and powerless by setting them against each other is a tried-and-true, but despicable, tactic of ruling class politicians and yet she seemed to be doing just that, pitting working class and less-educated whites against similar minorities.

A Saturday Night Live sketch from May 10 gave a harsh but also disturbingly perceptive caricature of her campaign’s tactics. In it, a Clinton-like character gives three reasons why the party should choose her as the nominee over Obama, and none of them reflect well on her.

The cliché that politics makes strange bedfellows was illustrated dramatically when the very people whom the Clintons once considered their enemies (the ‘vast right wing conspiracy’ led by people like Richard Mellon Scaife, Fox News, and others) became her supporters against Obama, and she in return has embraced them. It is extraordinary that the very people who had a such visceral dislike for the Clintons that it bordered on the insane, and threw their energies behind the Monica Lewinsky affair, Whitewater, and Vince Foster’s death to try and bring them down through impeachment, are now the very people who are urging her on.

She and Bill Clinton have done another surprising thing and that is openly campaign for the vice-presidency once her chances of winning the nomination receded. Traditionally it has been the case that people have campaigned for that slot very discreetly, while publicly disavowing any interest. The Clintons have turned that on its head and are publicly demanding that her strong showing practically requires that Obama give her the position.

Frankly, I do not see that happening. Obama would find himself hemmed in by two (Hillary and Bill) power-hungry, ambitious, ruthless, limelight-seeking people. Furthermore, her speech on Tuesday night when Obama’s victory was sealed was, as Greg Saunders remarks, remarkable for its gracelessness and self-centeredness, in startling contrast to the warm praise Obama gave her in his own speech.

Actually, I think Hillary Clinton would be more compatible as John McCain’s running mate. McCain has started saying very nice things about her, perhaps hoping to appeal to those Clinton supporters who have been goaded to fury by the Clinton campaign’s extraordinary and repeated claim that she has been singled out and treated unfairly by her party, even though the process was carried out according to the rules established by the party and agreed to by her at the beginning. As this Washington Post article points out, Obama’s strategists studied the rules carefully and devised a plan that they could use to win the majority of delegates even while losing the popular vote in some of the big states. This enabled them to overcome Clinton’s enormous early advantage in name recognition.

The Obama phenomenon is something that scholars will analyze for many years, whether he wins the presidency or not. If you had told me in late 2001, when America was angry and lashing out at the world and entering a period of extreme nationalism and xenophobia following the attacks on the World Trade Center, that in just seven years there would be a good chance that the country would elect as president a man born of an African father, with a foreign-sounding last name that was just one letter away from that of the hated author of those attacks, and whose middle name had Muslim roots and was the same as the last name of the foreign leader that the Bush administration was goading the public into a frenzy against, I would have said you were crazy.

And yet here we are with a candidate whose seems to have so fired the imagination of so many people that all these factors, though not ignored or insignificant, have ceased to be of overriding concern.

What is the source of Obama’a appeal?

He has been vague on specifics and what he has said about policy seems very traditional and mainstream, so it cannot be any new ideas that are drawing people in.

Perhaps it is because people really are looking for change and that it is the very fact that he is so obviously different from every serious candidate of the past that makes him attractive, a symbol for a nation that really wants to show that it has broken from some of the ugliest aspects of its past. As Ezra Klein wrote after Obama’s victory speech on Tuesday night:

Obama’s speech tonight was powerful, but then, most all of his speeches are. This address stood out less than I expected. It took me an hour to realize how extraordinary that was. I had just watched an African-American capture the Democratic nomination for the Presidency of the United States of America, and it felt . . . normal. Almost predictable. 50 years ago, African Americans often couldn’t vote, and dozens died in the fight to ensure them the franchise. African-Americans couldn’t use the same water fountains or rest rooms as white Americans. Black children often couldn’t attend the same schools as white children. Employers could discriminate based on race. 50 years ago, African Americans occupied, in effect, a second, and lesser, country. Today, an African-American man may well become the president of the whole country, and it feels almost normal.

Some of Clinton’s supporters claim that Obama benefited unfairly simply from being black and Klein’s comment may seem to provide support for that view. That would be an error. The prejudices against black people run deep and Obama’s candidacy will generate considerable unease. Many people will not vote for him purely because of his skin color, making laughable the suggestion that he is benefiting from being black. But that negative may be at least partially compensated by others who, while voting for him because of the hope he has inspired in them, will also take pride and pleasure in making a symbolic gesture towards creating a post-racial America. This makes John McCain’s tactic of claiming to be the more experienced candidate somewhat dicey, since it also makes it easy to paint him as representing the past and the status quo, a perception that kept dogging Clinton as well.

At least we can be reassured that Obama will carry himself with the kind of dignity that one expects from a national leader. One cannot see him doing cringe-inducing chest-bumps and other adolescent acts with Air Force Academy graduates as Bush did last week. Obama will not be an embarrassment.

Obama also seems like a person who thinks things through and does not make rash and ill-considered decisions and that will no doubt come as a relief to all those people who have been on edge as to what crazy plan Bush will sign on to next because his gut (or, equivalently, his god) tells him it is the right thing to do.

I don’t think many Americans quite understand how despised and disliked America and Americans are in the world right now, thanks to the arrogance, incompetence, and insensitivity that the Bush administration has displayed over the last seven years that have made Bush, even within this country, reach such low approval ratings that, combined with his disastrous performance in office, guarantees that he is going down in history as the worst president ever.

Whoever the next president is will have a very difficult time lifting the country out of the economic, political, and military dumpster that this administration has tossed it into, but one can be sure that Obama will start off with much greater feelings of goodwill around the world than McCain. When I was in Sri Lanka in January and April, I was amazed at how excited everyone I met was at the prospect of an Obama presidency. I did not meet a single person who expressed a preference for any of the large number of candidates of either party then running

Although I do not expect too much from Obama, I hope he wins. I am a hopeful optimist by nature and maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised by him.

POST SCRIPT: Sicko now online

Michael Moore’s film on the scandal that is the US health care system is now online courtesy of Machines Like Us and you can see it here.

If you haven’t seen it already, you really should.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    Stacey

    I too was sure it would be easier for a women to get the nomination then to a minority but I’m really happy that it is Obama and I have more faith in his ability to change policies than you do, I just hope I won’t be disillusioned

  2. 2
    Dan K

    I thought universal health care was explicitly mentioned as a part of Obama’s plan. Maybe it’s not the “single-payer” kind?

    Also, I’m here in China for the summer and I’ve been really curious as to how people on they other side of the world view us Americans. They definitely think Bush is a silly president, and there’s no debate out here that we went in Iraq for money and oil. I’m still not clear on how our president’s personality and actions reflect American people, but I was talking with some students and I think they were surprised to hear that he has ridiculously low approval ratings with the public. One girl asked me why we don’t use our frequently bragged-about power to vote him out of office.

    Maybe everybody’s silent on their real opinions of America, or maybe nobody cares. In this town at least.

  3. 3
    Mano

    Stacey,

    I hope so too.

  4. 4
    Mano

    Dan,

    Neither Obama nor Clinton mention single-payer plans. They do talk of universal care but implementing that in the context of private, profit-making insurance companies is going to result in a monstrosity that will not result in better care but will result in greater profits for the insurance companies.

    As for your other point, people in most countries know that their political leaders represent just an elite and not them, so they distinguish between a nation’s people and its leaders. They used to apply this distinction to the US too and so it used to be the case that Americans were liked and welcomed even as American policies were hated.

    2004 saw a major change in that attitude. The invasion of Iraq was so opposed around the world that people were stunned when the architect of that policy won re-election. They could not believe that Americans did that, and they started thinking that maybe Bush and the US government do represent the American people. And if those policies are bad or stupid, then Americans must be bad or stupid.

    I am oversimplifying terribly here but it is true that the election of 2004 was a watershed event in changing how the rest of the world perceives Americans.

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